To be considered Truly Evil in my book, an exercise must be brutal and spirit-crushing. It has to be ‘do-or-die,’ where the trainee is pushed to succeed or die trying. Evil Exercises are those that any sane person would avoid, but that are so effective in building strength as to be nearly indispensable. Short of an injury or medical condition, these exercises are a necessary evil.
In past posts on Evil Exercises, I’ve covered the Clean & Press and Lunges, both great multi-joint exercises that are hard to do, with their most brutal element being the insane cardio-respiratory demand when done at high repetitions. Tricep Dips are a whole new kind of evil, and for many (myself included), it only takes a few reps before you start questioning your will to live.
DIPS FOR TRICEPS…
The triceps are the muscles on the back of the upper arm. With three heads (the lateral, long, and medial heads) the triceps form a horseshoe shape on the back of the upper arm, aesthetically contributing the most to the overall size of the upper arms. Functionally, triceps extend the arms at the elbow and play a big part in push/press exercises such as the Bench and Overhead Presses. Whether your goal is aesthetic or functional, training triceps will give your arms the size you want and the strength you need for many important lifts.
Dips abuse all three heads of the triceps. Variations range in difficulty from “…these are hard” to “OMG WHY?!?!” Types of resistance, equipment used, and muscles targeted are all factors that make up an endless array of Dips. For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s start with the basics. For most trainees looking to build upper body and tricep strength, Parallel Bar Dips are the best bet.
Dips recruit your own bodyweight as resistance, making them an honest measuring stick of exactly where you stand in your overall weight-to-strength fitness ratio. Dips are a compound, multi-joint, closed-chain exercise – meaning you get a lot of bang for your buck. Compound movements are functional, incorporate more muscle and typically allow you to handle more weight. Not only does using bodyweight as resistance require greater core stability and strength, it stimulates greater neuromuscular activation, resulting in improved performance and strength gains.
Bodyweight Dips for triceps are best performed on parallel bars. Assume the starting position with your arms fully extended and supporting your full bodyweight, keeping your knees bent slightly and your feet crossed to help maintain stability and balance. Bending at the elbow, lower your body until your upper arms are parallel to the floor and your shoulder joint lines up with your elbows, making sure to keep your elbows close to your sides and your upper body as vertical as possible. Avoid leaning your upper body forward too much by locking your gaze up and forward throughout the motion. This upright position will keep the emphasis on your triceps.
DIPS FOR CHEST …
Although we have been talking about Dips as a triceps exercise, Dips can easily be modified to be more of a chest exercise. Looking down and leaning the upper body forward at the deepest part of the Dip will transfer a lot of emphasis from the triceps to the chest. This variation can be useful if you tend to train chest and triceps on the same day. To some degree, both the triceps and chest muscles will be involved in any Parallel Bar Dip; just make sure you are using the right form for the muscles you wish to target most.
FITTING DIPS INTO YOUR ROUTINE…
Triceps usually do a lot of work in a well-rounded training routine because they are involved in just about all push/press lifts for the upper body. If you train using a full-body routine with emphasis on the basic compound lifts like the Bench Press and Overhead Press, your triceps are getting worked plenty. As long as you are doing these lifts on a regular basis and going hard, your triceps should be good. If you feel the need to add a specific triceps exercise to your full-body routine, make it Dips.
If your training schedule involves any type of body part training split, be careful about where you place tricep training and dips in your routine. Triceps play an important role in the Bench and Overhead Press and you don’t want your triceps to be wrecked before doing these exercises. If training triceps with chest, do Dips right after benching. If you train triceps with shoulders, do Dips after your Overhead Press. If you train Triceps as part of a complete ‘Arms Day,’ do Dips first (after your warm-up) when you have the most energy, as this will likely be the most demanding compound movement you will do for your arms.
DIPS FOR BEGINNERS…
Know this going in: Bodyweight Dips are hard to do. There is no shame in not being able to do them at first. Knowing where you stand helps you shape goals and find direction in your training.
If you cannot do bodyweight Dips right away, try incorporating exercises that will build tricep and upper-body strength (while also doing the necessary work to reduce excess body weight). These include Weight Assisted Dips, Bench Dips, Dip Machine. Work with these exercises for a while, then after a few months, come back and try Dips again. Make Bodyweight Dips your goal. Work hard!
If, on the other hand, you find Bodyweight Dips are fairly easy and can do multiple sets of 10 or more, you are ready to add weight or try more challenging variations.
You can add weight by using a weighted dip belt, or by holding a dumbbell between your feet or a using a backpack to hold additional weights. This article explains how to progress your Dips from the Bench Dip and Parallel Bar Dips to more advanced variations: https://www.t-nation.com/training/all-about-dips
Take care of your shoulders. Preventing shoulder pain and injury should be a major concern through all your training, and Dips in particular put a good amount of pressure on the shoulder joint. But don’t rule them out just yet, there are few ways to keep your Dips shoulder-friendly.
Warm Up – Upper-body stretching and light warm-up sets for the shoulders will help ensure you’re not putting too much pressure on the shoulder joint too quickly. Here is a good warm up routine for the shoulders: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCp-YynBEvE#t=24
Go to Parallel – At the lowest point of the Dip, the upper arm should be parallel to the floor, with your shoulder and elbow joint lined up. A slight forward lean should take some of the pressure off the shoulders. Going deeper than parallel is desired ONLY IF your shoulders are healthy and don’t feel pain from Dips. Any history or tendency for shoulder pain is reason enough to only go as deep as parallel.
Alternatives – If Bodyweight Dips cause you pain, they just might not be the best exercise for you to train triceps. A great alternative compound movement for triceps is the Close Grip Press. Try these combined with Skull Crushers and Rope Extensions as part of your tricep training.
The ass-kicking metal in the embedded video is a song called “The Black Pot” by High On Fire. Let this pummel your eardrums!